Littlefield: ‘The Heritage’ Offers Incisive Look At Politics, Patriotism And Activism In Sports


Among the many powerful and thought-provoking contentions in Howard Bryant’s new book is this: “They were all in on it: NASCAR, MLB, the NBA, the NFL, NHL, MLS, and the NCAA. The military was using sports to sell the business of war.”

A lot of books having to do with sports are predictable. Bryant’s book, “The Heritage,” is not. His concern is with a responsibility he feels the most successful minority athletes must embrace. Their challenge, as Bryant sees it, is to pass along to their younger counterparts “the heritage,” a sense of the tradition represented by such activists as Jackie Robinson, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali and, more recently, Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, among others.

One triumph of Bryant’s contention is his recognition that none of the carriers of the heritage is perfect. One of Jackie Robinson’s missteps, which he acknowledged and came to regret, was helping the House Un-American Activities Committee to discredit Paul Robeson, whom Bryant considers the embodiment of the heritage during an especially dangerous time.

But imperfect as they are, the men and women Bryant cites have embraced the opportunity to stand for something greater than the accumulation of wealth. They have seen that the injunction to “shut up and dribble” comes from a mindset perfectly comfortable with the fact that “sporting events were now political, selling touchdowns and beer, three-pointers and home runs, but also fidelity to police and military and to a point of view that accepted the American government’s war on terror.” In other words, “shut up and dribble” means the players should keep their politics out of sports, but the introduction of political propaganda by team owners, the U.S. military and Madison Avenue should be swallowed whole and understood as something other than politics, because according to those producing and endorsing the message, it’s patriotism.

Lots of people watching the games probably take for granted the propaganda to which Bryant and some of the enlightened players object. But doing so runs counter to the recognition that the militarization of the culture has grim consequences. The acceptance of the world view that defines questioning reckless policies — such as arming police departments with weapons of war — as unpatriotic discourages dissent. It also makes more likely — and more deadly — the ongoing victimization of minority citizens by those allegedly protecting and serving all citizens.

These days, to make connections like the ones Bryant makes is to risk being labeled treasonous. But to ignore the connections he painstakingly demonstrates and to contend that the business of the pro athlete is merely to entertain and enjoy the benefits of the job, that they should be content to be, as Bryant puts it, “greenwashed,” is to endorse the diminished humanity of not only the athletes Bryant references, but all of the people who watch them.

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